As the guy who processes the results for the Colorado MileSplit site, occasionally I come across little gems of information. Sometimes the information is good news. Sometimes it's bad news. Sometimes it's neither good nor bad news, just fascinating. But, if we don't turn the trend around, this one is bad news.
It will take a few moments to explain this all, so find a comfy chair and sit down as you embark on reading this.
A lot of coaches I've spoken to this year have bemoaned the fact that numbers are down this year in cross country, sometimes way down. Not having easy access to the roster counts for every team in the state, however, made it difficult for me to put a finger on how far down.
With the arrival of regional meets, however, one clear indicator has arrived on our doorstep.
Regional meets are, of course, a lagging indicator of participation across the state. By that, I mean that the changes we see at regional meets are delayed and reduced from what the actual changes are. To illustrate, imagine a girls team that went from 20 members in 2019 to 15 members in 2021 (I've left out 2020 due to the obvious difficulties that attend to attaching meaning to participation numbers from last fall). That team would still run a complete roster at the regional meet, even though participation in the program was down by 25%.
It takes tripping over the line of nine team members (eight in 2A) for regional participation to register a decline in participation around the regions and state. Even so, we have reached that point.
The table below shows the number of complete (scoring) teams and the number of actual participants in each region in 2019 and 2021. I'll show you the numbers first, then attempt to discuss what they mean.
|Region||Teams 2019||Teams 2021||Indiv 2019||Indiv 2021|
|2A - 1||11||12||83||85|
|2A - 2||7||7||62||58|
|2A - 3||13||10||75||76|
|2A - 4||14||11||83||84|
|3A - 1||11||12||96||93|
|3A - 2||12||11||88||88|
|3A - 3||11||10||88||81|
|3A - 4||12||10||96||96|
|3A - 5||12||6||93||57|
|4A - 1||12||12||107||100|
|4A - 2||10||11||86||97|
|4A - 3||12||11||92||93|
|4A - 4||13||13||112||112|
|4A - 5||12||11||102||83|
|5A - 1||12||10||96||80|
|5A - 2||13||12||116||108|
|5A - 3||11||9||97||78|
|5A - 4||11||10||97||89|
|5A - 5||12||11||100||92|
|Region||Teams 2019||Teams 2021||Indiv 2019||Indiv 2021|
|2A - 1||10||9||58||63|
|2A - 2||7||8||41||64|
|2A - 3||10||7||58||56|
|2A - 4||10||11||70||71|
|3A - 1||9||11||87||87|
|3A - 2||8||8||71||65|
|3A - 3||10||7||80||63|
|3A - 4||10||9||90||80|
|3A - 5||9||6||72||53|
|4A - 1||12||13||105||108|
|4A - 2||10||11||79||90|
|4A - 3||11||9||97||72|
|4A - 4||11||12||96||96|
|4A - 5||11||9||90||80|
|5A - 1||11||8||86||73|
|5A - 2||13||12||117||104|
|5A - 3||12||10||98||85|
|5A - 4||10||8||87||73|
|5A - 5||12||11||98||92|
Although some regions were immune, or nearly so, to the declines, we see several regions around the state that witnessed substantial declines in regional participation from 2019 to 2021. Keep in mind, any declines would almost certainly be larger if we looked at overall participation instead of only regional participation. It's just that regional numbers are much, much easier to access.
It's possible that some of the regional declines in participation could be due to injuries. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to find reasons why injury rates might be slightly higher in 2021 than 2019, but injuries would likely account for only a very small portion of the disparities seen above.
The number of complete teams at the regional meets dropped nearly 10% across the state between 2019 and 2021, while the number of individuals dropped between 6 and 7%. Once again, keep in mind we are examining lagging indicators.
For whatever reason(s), numbers for both teams and individuals were more resilient in 2A and 4A, but more worrisome in 3A and 5A. I'll hazard a guess or two at explanations for that in the next two paragraphs.
2A has seen the greatest growth in number of schools participating. Think of programs like Ignacio, Stratton, and Wray--each of which came on board in the last two years. So, whatever reduction in participation there may have been in the various 2A schools is offset by the addition of new schools. 4A's school count has likely grown over the last two years due to playdowns from 5A. CHSAA initially sets up each classification to have equal numbers, but the downward movement of schools due to playdown agreements with CHSAA leaves the classifications a little imbalanced in numbers by the time actual competition takes place. 5A is the big loser in this scenario because nobody plays down into 5A. The more playdowns there are, the more 5A numbers suffer.
3A is, on the whole, more vulnerable to reduced numbers within its member programs than 4A or 5A. A much larger percentage of 3A schools lives close to the edge in terms of fielding full squads than is the case in 4A or 5A.
Even a not-very-close examination of the tables above reveals some striking differences between regions in terms of the differences between 2019 and 2021 numbers. Surely, some of this is random variation, and some due to concentrations of highly stable programs within certain regions. While both of those are undoubtedly true, I suspect other factors--and perhaps some socio-economic factors--are in play as well.
Of course, when you see numbers like this, you immediately start asking, "Why?" That kind of answer is more difficult to come by--at least if you want a reasonable level of certainty attached. Certainly, COVID enters the discussion early as a significant player. The presence of COVID over the last 20 months has made our culture, as a whole, much more cautious. Caution might easily manifest itself in the form of reduced participation numbers. COVID has also meant more people spending time in relative isolation. Most stable high school cross country programs have a strong social element. Frankly, most kids enjoy running more when doing it with others. Those doing-it-with-others groups have dwindled in size over the last 20 months, at least in pockets.
At some level, increasingly sedentary childhoods are also playing a role in the decline of cross country participation. Screen time tends not to produce many competitive runners.
Whatever the answers might be, we now at least have a clearer picture of the problem before us courtesy of our regional meets.